How You Know A Poem Has Failed

I’ve been doing major writing housekeeping, sorting through poems from the last fifteen years and deciding which to keep, which to keep working on, and which to put away. Facing up to all that failed work is a relief. Stapling the drafts together, taking them out of the current circulation section, putting them in a pile; just the physical actions feel like a victory.

Some good reasons for retiring a poem:

  • My tone of voice was too smug.
  • My conclusion was overly simplistic and not “earned”.
  • My references were all internal mythology and therefore too obscure. (Note: this doesn’t seem to stop some very successful poets. 🙂  )
  • Lazy anthropomorphism. Given how much I tend to write about “nature”, this is a big problem in my writing. You would think that the North American seasons were a set of sitcom characters walking around in my head.

I think what it comes down to is that I was too darn clever. It’s as if I thought the poem was a puzzle, and I was terribly pleased with myself when I made it fit. When I read them again, they don’t excite me; they make me annoyed with myself.

There are other ways of failing that are more frustrating. Like when the poem Fails To Arrive. It’s draft that has a worthwhile beginning, is honest, but just trails off. It doesn’t get where it was headed for.  Sometimes these poems go back in the “worth working on” pile. But I’m getting better at letting these efforts go, knowing I’ll come back to the themes that have that provoking energy. I’ll either write a better version of it in the future, or I’ll keep generating more, better, failures.

Finally, there’s the poem I put away because I just plain hate it. Like, if it reminds me too vividly of certain moments in my life. Like, unrequited-love-for-inappropriate-love-objects moments.

Lizzie Siddal contracts pneumonia
“I am half-sick of resembling every other Waterhouse model,” said the Lady of Shalott.


You get the idea.


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